The Zero Hour Thesis
25 October 2012
What happens after the end of history?
Zero hour arrives…
If history is defined in terms of ideological struggle, and the ideological struggles that defined the modern period of Western history ended with the end of the Cold War, then we are living today after the end of history.
One of the paradoxes we have witnessed along with the death knell of history is that the only political ideology that supposedly remains in the wake of hundreds of years of bitter ideological conflict — what Fukuyama identified as liberal democracy — has few friends, and fewer yet true believers.
I invite the reader to go out on the street and ask passers-by about their political ideologies, and I suspect that fewer than one in ten will identify themselves as an advocate of liberal democracy (whether explicitly or by any of its familiar code words). You will likely find more professing Marxists and fundamentalists than professing advocates of the liberal democratic nation-state.
There are many reasons for the lackluster image of liberal democracy today. In From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism I argued that, “the political class of the US does not believe in the Enlightenment ideals that were instrumental in constituting the US political system.” There is also the disconnect between the glittering generalities of democracy and freedom and the actual living conditions of most people; the end of history has not bequeathed to us a planet full of Switzerlands who behave responsibly toward each other and are solicitous of the welfare of their citizens.
The central reason, however, for the lack of enthusiasm for liberal democracy in its moment of ideological triumph is quite simple: the “system” of liberal democracy lacks all legitimacy. Liberal democratic societies in their mature incarnations have not given us more democracy or more freedom, but less. Just as importantly, the liberal democratic world order has not produced a more just world order, and the manifest absence of both distributive and retributive justice has begun to rankle.
Even those who administer the justice system know that it has failed and is beyond reform, since the administrators of justice have turned to de facto exemplary justice through media exposure. This is what is commonly known as the “perp walk.” When a wealthy and influential individual is arrested for a crime, he or she is paraded before television cameras for a public shaming. Why? Because everyone knows that the television cameras will spread the message to the world, but that the legal system will not.
In the case of highly complex political or financial fraud, in which the explanation of the fraud in a court of law is likely to be as sophisticated and detailed as the crime itself, if not more so, it is inevitable that the outcome will be murky. In the most sophisticated forms of crime, there may not even be laws that address the malfeasance. Charges and counter-charges will be made in court, some charges will stick while others will not, but the result will not satisfy anyone’s conception of justice. So the television cameras are called in to do what the courts will not or cannot do.
There is a recognition, in such cases, that there has been some kind of wrongdoing, even if that wrongdoing is extraordinarily difficult to define, to document, or to prove in court. No one, not even the accused, questions that something problematic has occurred, and that many people have been bilked and cheated and lied to, but it is also increasingly beyond question that the guilty party will not be held criminally responsible, or even, for that matter, held responsible in any sense whatsoever.
The political process is as compromised as the legal process, if not more so. In fact, all of the prized procedural rationality that goes into court cases and electioneering and financial deals is a contributing cause of the social and political failure of contemporary liberal democracy, and not the solution to the problem. And this is why increasing the number of rules, regulations, and laws only increases the public’s sense of frustration, because the public knows that the very complexity of the regulatory apparatus will allow the privileged to skip to the front of the line in life, while the rest must queue around the block.
The closer our procedural rationality brings us to a pure democracy, or at least to a pure exemplar of representative institutions based on popular sovereignty, the more we willingly deliver ourselves to celebrity over meritocracy. A corrupt democracy in which votes are bought or are to be had through intimidation is a political system that is partly insulated from the politics of celebrity. The more we improve our political system, the more we contribute to the pervasive “dumbing down” of contemporary culture by making all political decisions on the basis of popularity.
The failure of liberal democracy to deliver a just political order calls the liberal democratic ideology into question. Liberal democracy has not attained the just social order that its advocates have presented as its raison d’être. Even if an ideologically-inspired reconstruction of the social order fails to bring about the imagined ideal social order, it might nevertheless bring about a (marginally) better life for the greater number of people, almost as an afterthought, or even as an unintended consequence. Has this come about? It could be argued that it has, but it could be argued with equally plausibility that the contemporary political order has made the peoples under its rule so poor and miserable in spirit that no luxuries have been worth the exchange.
Today there are still true believers. That means that ideologies retain their attractiveness and at least some of their efficacy. It is only when all ideologies find themselves bereft of believers that our condition can proceed beyond the end of history, i.e., can drop below history degree one to history degree zero.
There are true believers who do not know that they are true believers, because that in which they truly believe has never been called into question — has never, if you like, faced an existential risk. And the true object of belief of the true believers in the political system of our time is not liberal democracy, as I noted in History Degree Zero, but the nation-state system. It is the ideology of the nation-state that is triumphant today; it the political order itself, and not any one particular constituent of that political order (i.e., a nation-state), that has unquestioned sway.
In our post-historical present of metapolitical monoculture, in which stability and continuity are the be-all and end-all of social organization — that is to say, at history degree one — we have seen not the emergence of an “Axis of Evil” but rather a shifting matrix of powers and would-be powers who adventitiously and opportunistically form transient alliances in order to oppose the metapolitical order. Among these powers and would-be powers are the peoples of the world, putatively represented by their nation-states, but in fact unrepresented because they represent no interest group within the metapolitical order.
As long as there is this belief in metapolitical stability, then there will be two factions: those who want to perpetuate the status quo and those who oppose the status quo. Where there are two factions, there are true believers on both sides of the divide, and thus the metapolitical monoculture of liberal democracy, i.e., the nation-state system, continues to produce robust and vigorous ideological struggle even beyond the end of history at history degree one. In other words, there is no more conservative force in the world today than that of anarchism, which holds what influence it does hold in virtue of its struggle with its other — metapolitical stability.
It is only when the world has been so utterly cleansed of political delusion that faction will become impossible because not only is there nothing to believe in, there is also nothing to meaningfully oppose. This is Zero Hour.
Zero Hour is the explicit and conscious recognition of the radical failure of all ideological movements (without qualification or exception) to both:
1. attain their stated ends, and…
2. broadly improve the standard of living
Zero Hour implies that we are returned to a state of nature and its presumed attendant political innocence. At Zero Hour, not only have all known political ideologies failed, but everyone knows that all political ideologies have failed. Zero Hour means that there are no more true believers, because even the true believers have been disabused of their ideals and disillusioned. (To find innocence, we must go by the way of corruption, as Heraclitus might have formulated it.)
Should we fear Zero Hour, or should we welcome it? Will we even know it when it happens — if it happens? Will we be able to recognize Zero Hour for what it is? What signs and wonders would herald forth the coming of Zero Hour?
Some ages of global history dawn suddenly, while others dawn gradually. I have recently noted in Addendum on the Temporal Structures of Civilization that the historical transition between medievalism and modernism was continuous at every point.
Unlike the slow, gradual, and incremental emergence of modernism, or even of the Industrial Age, to which no particular calendar date can be attached, the Atomic Age blazed suddenly and dramatically into existence on 06 August 1945 at Hiroshima, Japan, and flared again three days later on 09 August 1945 at Nagasaki. The age-old human vision of the End of the World became something real and palpable in a way that it had not been before, and now the power to end the world was in human hands.
Will Zero Hour arrive with a bang or a whimper?
The only thing we know is that we do not know.
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